This is the fourth picture that can be found on the walls of the church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. It is a portrayal of the incident recorded in Mark 12.41-44. So there is the chest, the widow, Jesus and a disciple.
I came across a new interpretation of this passage. In the previous verses we have been warned about the teachers of the law: ‘They like to devour widow’s houses’ (v40). And now we read of a widow who has to put everything that she has into the temple collection box. Jesus' is challenging a religious system which exploits the poor.
While I think that we need to hear that challenge, I am not convinced that this is what is going on here.
The widow’s giving appears to be completely voluntary.
And Jesus points to her as an example of giving.
My own view is that Jesus is teaching us here what it means to follow him, about discipleship.
The contrast here is not between the teachers of the law and the widow.
It is not even between those who give for show and those who give in secret. Jesus is able to see what both the rich and the poor are giving. The widow does not give in secret.
The contrast is between the giving of the rich and the giving of the widow: The rich give ‘out of their abundance’. The widow gives all that she has.
1. This widow teaches us that people are more precious to God than money
The rich are putting large amounts of money in the chest. The widow puts in one pence.
Who gives the most? Well, obviously the rich.
But Jesus says that the widow has put in more than all the others.
Why? Because she has put in everything that she has. She has put in herself.
There is the story of the little boy who went up with all the other people who were taking their donations to the front. They placed them on the large plate, which was held by the minister. The little boy came to the minister. He asked him to lower the plate, and then to lower it even more. The man thought it was because the boy couldn’t reach. But as he lowered it to the ground, the little boy stood on it. He is offering himself.
In the end, the offering that God is looking for is not the offering of our money. He wants the offering of lives that are dedicated to him, of men and women and girls and boys who put our trust in him.
God is looking for whole-life offerings: for us to offer him not a bit of our wealth or time, a few of our gifts or some of our property. He is looking for people who mean business with him; for people who are prepared to dedicate all of their wealth and their time, their gifts and their property to him. He is looking for people who offer him their achievements and failures, their hopes and frustrations, their hurts and joys. Because it is when we do that, he is able to work in us and through us.
2. This widow teaches us that we cannot afford not to give.
The rich are giving large donations because they can afford to give.
They are giving ‘out of their abundance’.
We give, most of the time, out of our wealth; because we can afford it.
After the costs of the essentials have been met (food, clothing, utility bills, rent or mortgage and travel), and after the things we choose to spend our money on (the holidays, the children, a higher than average mortgage, clothes that make us look or feel good, gadgets and mobile phones and internet, a smart car, a particular hobby – golf or sailing or cycling or play stationing, going out for meals or theatre or clubbing etc), we then put whatever is left in the plate.
And then we are challenged that God should not be the last on the list but the first on the list. So we choose the amount we wish to give, what we can afford to give, and at the beginning of the week or month we set that money aside, whether through putting money in an envelope or setting up a standing order.
And then we are challenged to consider whether what we give really does represent the place that God has in our life.
I recall one person, who I hasten to add was not from here and who I suspect was not short of a penny or two, telling me rather proudly that he put 50p into the collection every time he came to church. I suspect he wanted me to say thank you on behalf of the church. So I think he was a bit taken back when I answered, ‘That is great. What we give reflects what God means to us. And if God means less than half of one newspaper each week to you, then that is what you should give.’
And I have heard people use the story of this widow to say that our giving should be measured not by how much we give, but by how much we hold back for ourselves. A wealthy person who tithes and who gives £10k a year – may be beloved by the treasurer – but in God’s eyes is giving far less than someone with very little who tithes and gives £1k a year. Why? Because the wealthy person still has £90k left whereas the person who is poorer only has £9k left to live on for the year.
But I don’t think Jesus, by drawing his followers attention to this woman, is saying that here.
He is saying something much more radical.
Here is a widow who is doing exactly what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do in Mark 10.21: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’. (Mark 10.21)
This widow had almost nothing, but she gave everything that she had.
She gives because she realizes she can’t afford not to give.
She was a widow. There was no social security, no widow’s pension. Opportunities for employment for women were very limited. You moved from your father’s household to your husband’s household to your child’s household. And if your husband died early, you were stuffed. And this woman had lost her husband, and she had nothing. So when she gave the two coins, she really was giving everything that she had. There was nobody else she could turn to. She was throwing herself on the mercy of God.
She gives as an act of trust in God
She had heard the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16).
About 600 years earlier, there had been a severe famine. Elijah, who was a prophet, went to a widow and asks her to give him something to eat. She says, ‘I’ve only got enough for one last meal for my son and myself and then there is no more. We plan to eat and then die. But you are welcome to share that meal with us if you wish’. Elijah tells her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Prepare the meal, give first a little to me, and then eat the rest with your son. But you will not die, because God says there will always be some grain in your jar and some oil in your jug until the famine ends’.
I’ve had my own widow of Zarephath moments.
The first opportunity that I remember is one that I messed up. I was back from university for the holiday and got a bus into Nottingham to go to church. I knew hardly anyone there. All I had in my pocket was £1 for the bus fare back home. The collection came round and I had a deep conviction that I should put that £1 in the plate. I didn’t. I thought, “How will I get home if I put that money in the offering?” I really wish that I had, because at the end of the service, a couple started talking with me. They asked me where I lived, and then said that they lived in that direction, and they offered me a lift home.
There have been other moments when I have been asked to take a new step of faith in God. Most of them I have bottled out of, but occasionally I have taken those small steps of faith and trusted God to provide, and he has provided.
Here was a woman, however, who by putting those two coins into the temple treasury was taking a major step of faith. Jesus says of her, “out of her poverty she has put in everything that she had, all she had to live on”.
I’d love to know what the end of this story is. What happened to her? Did Jesus go up to her and invite her to join the small group of men and women who were beginning to follow him. Is she one of the women who are at the foot of the cross when he dies? Does she become part of the community? Or does she go out of the temple and Fantine-esq meet with her Jean Valjean? We don’t know, but I am convinced of this. God did provide for her what was necessary, and one day, when we meet with her, we will find out how!
3. This woman is a model of what it means to follow Jesus, of discipleship
There is clearly a theme running through the mosaics in St Apollinare Nuovo. They take us on a journey – just as in Mark’s gospel, we are invited to follow Jesus on the way. The presence of the disciples in each of these images is a clue – as is the fact that several of them are moving us on to the right, to the next image. It is a journey that begins with the healing of the paralysed man and ends with the risen Jesus pointing us to heaven.
And here we have a woman who is a model of discipleship. She is an example to us of giving, yes, but more than that.
She is a model of someone who recognizes that she owes God everything, and without God she is nothing. And in a very practical way, through putting money into that temple chest, she throws herself onto the mercy of God. She abandons herself into his hands.
V44 could be paraphrased: ‘She gave everything she had to God, and she lay down her life’. It is what Jesus calls his followers to do: ‘to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him’. It is how he lived his life, and it is a glimpse of what he is going to do in a few chapters time.
This woman had been brought to this point probably because, with the death of her husband, she had been brought to the very bottom and she realized that everything else had failed her.
When life is going well, it is so easy to put our trust in riches and the things around us. So maybe taking that step of giving everything away, is just a little too big for us, at the moment!
But we will discover that there are moments when we are invited to follow this woman and to step out in faith. Not maybe by giving everything that we have – that is like trying to get from the bottom step of our staircase to the top step in one move – but by taking a risk. It might be a step of obedience, forgiving someone, saying sorry to someone, volunteering for a project, coming on the Journey’s course. But it might also be about choosing to give more than we think that we can afford. Giving out of our poverty and not out of our abundance.
It means we take a small step of faith, trusting in the God who notices and who loves us. And we throw ourselves on his mercy.
Whenever I have read this story I have thought of this woman as stooped and crushed.
But in this mosaic she is standing upright and noble. And I think that the artist has seen something.
When we abandon ourselves and put our trust in Jesus, when we offer to him everything, it is then that we are at our most noble, we are most human and we are most God-like.